House Speaker John A. Boehner. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress are heading into summer much the way they did last year — instigating a showdown with the White House by demanding massive federal budget cuts in exchange for what used to be the routine task of raising the nation's debt limit to pay the government's bills.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is doubling down on the strategy that ended in mixed results last year after the country came to the brink of a federal default before a deal was struck with President Obama. In that go-round, both sides saw their approval ratings with voters plummet and the nation's credit was downgraded.
But Republicans are calculating that voters — at least their own supporters and a sufficient number of independents — will reward them in their pursuit of the White House and Congress this November if they portray themselves as the side willing to tackle the nation's budget imbalances by slashing federal programs. By contrast, Obama has sought to lower the nation's deficit with what the White House calls a balanced approach that mixes spending cuts with new taxes on corporations and wealthier Americans.
"The issue is the debt," Boehner said Sunday on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "Dealing with our deficit and our debt would help create more economic growth in the United States and it would lift this cloud of uncertainty that's causing employers to wonder what's next."
The White House has appeared surprised that Republicans already are preparing for a do-over of last year's debt ceiling standoff, particularly since the deadline for raising the ceiling again will not come until the end of this year or early 2013. Democratic strategists seem pleased, however, to have yet another opportunity to portray Republicans as extreme and catering to the tea party conservatives.
"The speaker wants to go over the edge," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the minority leader, on the same show. "This is not a responsible, mature, sensible place for us to go."
The debate playing out in Congress will ricochet across the presidential campaign, as Mitt Romney, the GOP's presumed nominee, has largely embraced the budgetary policies coming from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The administration has said it can continue paying the nation's bills through the end of the year, but then will ask ask Congress to lift the nation's statutory debt limit to avoid defaulting on already accrued obligations. The nation's debt load nearly doubled during the George W. Bush administration, and then skyrocketed under Obama as tax revenue dropped and spending increased during the recession. The debt now stands at $15.4 trillion.
Boehner wants to launch the debt debate now, to frame the fall election while beginning to lay the groundwork for what Washington expects will be a jam-packed lame-duck session of Congress at the end of the year.
At that time, a confluence of events will require the attention of Congress and the White House and create political leverage for both sides: Tax cuts, first enacted during the Bush administration, are set to expire, and deep budget cuts approved as part of last year's debt ceiling deal will slash across the Pentagon and domestic spending.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader, suggested on CBS' "Face the Nation" that this summer was the "perfect time" to begin the conversations. But fellow GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on the same show that he doubted resolution could be reached until after the election.
The risk for Republicans is not only in presenting another high-stakes showdown at a time when voters have grown weary of the gridlock in Washington.
The GOP also is betting that voters will support the economic theory they are espousing — that cutting back on federal spending and lowering taxes for corporations and wealthy Americans will create jobs.
While Americans, and especially sought-after independent voters, are concerned about the nation's debt load, according to polls, jobs remain their top concern.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, said Romney's private sector work experience, including his time at Bain Capital, give him the advantage over Obama on this topic.
"President Obama's private business experience hasn't seen the inside of a lemonade stand," Priebus said on CNN's "State of the Union With Candy Crowley." "It's time to put someone in the White House who understands how job creation works in this country, and that's Gov. Romney."
But Obama campaign senior advisor David Axelrod, on the same show, characterized the choice before voters more broadly.
"Moving forward, what kind of economic policies do we want?" Axelrod asked.
Pushing the debate budget this summer will also help Boehner politically, and he acknowledged Sunday the challenges he faces in corralling his own restive GOP majority, especially the dozens of freshmen, many aligned with the tea party, who have pressed him repeatedly over the last two years to take even more conservative positions.
"Leaders need followers," Boehner acknowledged. "And it's hard to keep 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to get a bill passed."